Then and Now: Jewish mayor’s legacy to city at Sutro Baths

It’s May, and San Francisco’s good weather continues. On beautiful days, we have so many activity options that it can be hard to choose just one: swimming, an outdoor concert, the cool of a museum gallery?

Sutro Baths, now in ruins, offered one-stop entertainment. photo/creative commons-eekim

A century ago, we didn’t have to choose. In 1896, Adolph Sutro, the city’s first identifiably Jewish mayor (he served from 1894 to 1896), opened Sutro Baths to provide one-stop shopping for San Franciscans looking for escape and entertainment at the ocean’s edge.

Sutro Baths was the world’s largest indoor swimming pool establishment (Fleishhacker Pool, at the other end of Ocean Beach, was the biggest outdoor pool). But lest some of the thousands become bored with the seven huge pools — one fresh and six saltwater — Sutro also provided a museum, ice skating rink and concert hall with seating for 8,000.

The baths were reached via a new electric rail line and enclosed by 100,000 square feet of glass, through which one could view the architectural majesty of the Cliff House.

The recent documentary on this watery fairyland, “Sutro’s: The Palace at Lands End,” recounts how the baths represented a combination of engineering excellence, philanthropy and populism, all of which continue to define the civic character of the Bay Area.

Unfortunately, the baths proved very expensive to maintain, and a 1966 fire finally put the operation out of business. What’s left of this wonderland is a picturesque series of ruins — and the latest iteration of the Cliff House.

This column is provided to j. by Daniel Schifrin, writer-in-residence at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, where stories of local Jewish life are explored in “California Dreaming: Jewish Life in the Bay Area from the Gold Rush to the Present.”

Dan Schifrin
Dan Schifrin

Daniel Schifrin, a local teacher and writer, is writing a play about medieval Jewish Spain as a LABA Fellow at the JCC East Bay.